Membership has its privileges.
That was the lesson of the Haggler’s last two episodes, which offered a dumbfounded look at the high ratings awarded by the Better Business Bureau to companies that get a lot of complaints from their customers. But does a company really need to pay annual dues to the bureau — typically hundreds of dollars — to get the upside that comes with a high Better Business Bureau grade?
And so, dear reader, we dive yet again into the peculiar, alternative universe that is the Better Business Bureau, where consumer complaints go to die — or at least become categorized as “administratively resolved,” which turns out to be roughly the same thing.
This time, a look at the bureau’s inexplicable tolerance for a company in Springfield, Mo., that for years has operated what is known as a “phoner toner” business — a telemarketing operation that sells ink cartridges for printers, often to people who say they didn’t place an order and at prices that far exceed market rates.
Dataline Technologies, which does not pay for Better Business Bureau accreditation, has been providing the phoner-toner experience to people across the country for years. Actually, Dataline is just one of many names used by this outfit. It has also operated as High Performance Laser Works, Laser Works, Microtek Solutions, MTek, DynaTek, Intratek and, for all we know, other names, too. All of these companies were run from the same address, sold the same product and were owned or managed by the same guy: Richard Morsovillo.
What we know about Morsovillo is that by now he should be in a different line of work. In 2000, he signed an assurance of voluntary compliance — essentially an “I promise I won’t do that” — with the attorney general of Missouri. (At the time, Morsovillo was doing business as High Performance Laser Works, HP Laser Works and Dataline, according to the document.)
By signing the assurance, Morsovillo vowed, among other things, “not to ship computer/printer supplies to persons or businesses who have not ordered said supplies.” He also paid $5,000 to the state for the cost of the investigation, and he denied any wrongdoing.
Attempts to contact Morsovillo failed miserably. He did not return e-mails or calls. But the Haggler heard from J.R. Hobbs, a lawyer in Kansas City, Mo., who represents Morsovillo. Hobbs stated that he had been retained roughly two years ago in response to an inquiry by federal postal inspectors, adding that he had been working with Morsovillo to ensure that his various companies were in full compliance of state and federal consumer law.
Did Morsovillo keep his promise to the state attorney general? On the website of the Better Business Bureau, dozens of people have written in with stories about different iterations of his companies, and each of these postings is furious enough for Technicolor. Many sales tactics are described. One favorite, according to postings: A rep from one of the companies calls an office and, with casual authority, says something like, “The IT department asked me to get the make and model of your printer” — and with that information in hand, and after a bit of confusing patter, a shipment of vastly overpriced product is sent.
One unhappy customer wrote on the site: “Company charging a 25 percent restocking, plus shipping and handling, on return items, without first informing the customer of the potential charge.”
There are nine all-but-identical complaints about DynaTek, which seems to be one of Morsovillo’s company names of choice these days. So how loud are the alarms sounded by the venerable watchdog organization about Morsovillo and his assorted enterprises? Not loud. Inaudible, actually. Dataline has an A-plus rating. DynaTek has a B-plus.
How is this possible, you may wonder? Judy Mills, president of southwestern Missouri office of the Better Business Bureau, said that it was all about the response of the company to each individual complaint. “These companies have a 25 percent restocking fee,” she said, “but in most cases the BBB has convinced them to take back the merchandise without charging that fee. When that happens, we feel we have resolved the complaint.”
Which gets to what is so absurdly blinkered about the bureau’s approach to grades. It is true that many, though not all, of Morsovillo’s customers get their money back and are not charged a restocking fee. It’s also true that every complaint is painstakingly rebutted on the bureau’s site by someone in Morsovillo’s employ — it might be the man himself — giving the impression that the customer might be in the wrong and that, at a minimum, the company cares enough to argue its case in good faith.
But a pattern of abuse seems clear. And as the Haggler dug around a bit, with an assist from Mills, it appeared as though Morsovillo retired corporate names when they accumulated too many complaints with the Better Business Bureau, and replaced them with new ones. So goodbye High Performance, which hasn’t been complained about since 2009 and had an F grade. And hello Intratek, which first popped up in the Better Business Bureau’s system on January 2010.
In short, Morsovillo seems to be playing the Better Business Bureau and doing so free of charge.
“BBB does not have a clear understanding of this business,” the bureau said on DynaTek’s report, by way of explanation.